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Tensions persist, mayor urges commissioners to move forward

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Commissioner awaiting open records information

By Stephen Lega

The tension within the Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission hasn't let up just yet.

During a special-called meeting Oct. 20, the first item on the agenda referred to a commissioner's continued appointment, and it appears to have stemmed from an open records request made by Commissioner Dennis George.

Mayor Gary Crenshaw attended last week's meeting and urged the commissioners to find a way to work together, even with their disagreements.

"I would ask that we move on with the business of establishing leadership and work through these problems," Crenshaw said.

The commission has been without an executive director since Aug. 19, which was Chris Hamilton's last day before accepting a position with the Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau in Illinois.

Crenshaw also told the commission that George's open records request was legal and legitimate and that City Attorney Kandice Engle-Gray was working with the commission's executive assistant to reply to the request.

On Sept. 23, George made a request to Commission Chairman Dan Lawson, seeking all phone records, emails and written communication between Hamilton and commission members or employees since Hamilton left. George repeated his request Oct. 12 when he had not received a response to his initial request, and that request was forwarded to Carla Wagner, the commission's executive assistant.

Under state law, government bodies have three days (not counting weekends or holidays) to respond in writing to open records requests.

"We can all question whether I should have done it," George said in a phone interview, "but once the request was made, it should be honored."

When last week's meeting started, however, Commissioners Tom Lund and Nancy Higdon seemed confused about why they were being asked to consider whether a member should remain on the commission.

"Can somebody explain why we're doing this?" Lund asked.

Commissioner Dave Winebrenner said that the question was whether the commission could continue with its primary purpose of getting as many people as possible into local restaurants and hotels.

"I don't know if all of us can do that," he said.

George said it was obvious that the item was in reference to him and some commissioners felt that his presence on the board has become a hindrance.

"There are some who think I should be asked to resign," he said.

George then urged the commissioners to deal with the issue head-on. He asked that commissioners to make the motion and second it so they could have discussion, vote and move on one way or the other.

No one made that motion.

In a phone interview the day after the meeting, Chairman Dan Lawson said a majority of the board had been having issues with George.

"If [the issues] couldn't be rectified or corrected, they were going to ask the mayor to reconsider Mr. George if we felt, as a group, that we couldn't move forward," Lawson said.

During the meeting, Winebrenner talked about how the commission has changed since he was first appointed. He said meetings used to last 45 minutes and had a collegial atmosphere, but something has changed in the last year or so.

"We've had a lot of acrimony in the commission. There have been a lot of discussions that are not really getting to the point of what we need to move forward," Winebrenner said. "And I think the issue is: can we move forward with the current group that we have?"

George again urged someone to make the motion. Instead, Winebrenner asked if George was interested in being an active member of the commission.

George said he wasn't at the meeting to be interviewed, but he did say he intended to be as active in the future as he has been in the past.

In a phone interview, George pointed out that he was one of three Lebanon City Council members who voted to create the commission. He added that he went before the council earlier this year to argue against the elimination of the restaurant tax. He has volunteered to assist with marketing efforts, including meeting with ad representatives, and he and Commissioner Brad Lanham recently met with someone about the executive director's position to consider that person as a possible candidate.

"I don't know what more I could have done," George said.

During the meeting, Lawson asked Crenshaw if he wanted to comment on the situation.

"In my conversations with Mr. George, there is no doubt in my mind that he has the desire to serve the public," Crenshaw said.

The mayor continued to say that many of the commission's problems have stemmed from a lack of an executive director, and he urged them to move forward to hire someone to fill that vacancy.

Later in the meeting, the commission authorized Lawson to appoint an interim executive director. Wayne Keen, the former transportation director for Marion County Public Schools, started in that position on a part-time basis Monday. Keen will be paid $12 per hour in that position until a permanent director is hired. Lawson added that Keen was hired to work up to 32 hours a week.

Crenshaw also said the open records request put the executive assistant Carla Wagner in a difficult position because she did not have the authority or expertise to address what was a legal request.

Wagner had submitted her resignation and rescinded it prior to the commission's Oct. 20 meeting. The commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of reinstating her with George casting the opposing vote.

Crenshaw concluded his comments with a plea for the commissioners to continue their efforts and to do so together. He added that he could have appointed a commission whose members all thought the same, but that would make for stale, boring and inept ideas.

He said the disagreements may be difficult in the short term, but they would make the commission stronger in the long run.

"I think you do a fabulous job, and I'm proud of you," Crenshaw said. "And I want you to keep serving this community."

Commissioner Carlotta Brussell followed up Crenshaw's remarks by saying all the commissioners were volunteers, but they also need to present themselves professionally.

"Any personal agenda or personal vendettas need to be left at the door when we walk in here," she said.

George said his request was not made as part of a personal vendetta, but because of a desire to maintain transparency with tax dollars. He added that when an open records request is made, it should be honored whether it is from "Dennis George or the media or Joe Blow, they have a right to that, and we have an obligation by law to honor those requests."

He concluded by asking that all the commissioners do what is right.

"A good friend of mine always said, 'Question my methods, not my motives,'" George said.

Commission approves property acquisition

After months of discussion in executive sessions, the commission voted last week to provide $24,000 toward the purchase of property at the intersection of intersection of Burkes Spring Road and Hwy. 52.

The total purchase price for the property is $34,500. The Lebanon City Council voted to provide $10,000 toward the purchase during its Oct. 10 meeting, and Crenshaw said Lund, who is Marion County Economic Development Director would find the remaining $500.

The City of Lebanon will own the property and lease it to the commission.

Crenshaw has said that Maker's Mark officials have told them that 100,000 people pass that intersection each year. The plan is to clean up the property and put up a few picnic tables and a sign promoting attractions and businesses in Lebanon.

Also on Oct. 20, the Marion County Fiscal Court approved a memorandum of understanding with the City of Lebanon regarding the maintenance of that property. Marion County Judge/Executive John G. Mattingly clarified during the fiscal court meeting that community service workers from Marion County Detention Center would do the maintenance.

Executive director search continues

While Keen has assumed the executive director's seat on a temporary basis, the commission is continuing to narrow its list of candidates.

Lawson said the commission plans to conduct second interviews with three candidates it has already interviewed and a first interview with another candidate. After those interviews, the commission hopes to narrow the list to two finalists, he said.

Lawson did say that three of the four candidates being considered are from out of state.